"The closer the subject is to the light, the softer the light will be on the face," said photographer Clay Cook as he moved the light with the Photek softlighter on it closer to designer Gunnar Deatherage (Project Runway), who was leaning against a wooden ladder in Cook's garage. Deatherage is usually on the other side of the camera styling shoots with Cook, but he was asked to pose for a series of photos inspired by vintage mug shots. Other local fashion, beauty, and photography professionals were also featured in the series.
"When I first started shooting photography, I shot friends at parties," Cook said. "I got a new backdrop from Oliphant Studios in NYC and wanted to try it out, so I invited friends and people who have inspired me to be a part of the series. Many of them helped me become the photographer I am."
Recently featured on Fashion World's Facebook page (garnering over 4,000 "likes"), Cook has come a long way since his teenage creative explorations. He attributes his passion for creativity to his mother, an interior designer, and his business sense to his father, who owns and operates a successful flooring distribution company. Cooks visual expression began with an 8mm camera that he used to make "war" movies in his backyard as he dreamt of being Steven Spielberg. His artistic endeavors led to a love of music, and he found a rush of adrenaline from bands like Metallica and Nirvana that inspired him to dedicate the next decade to a career in music.
"During that time on the road, I ran into many photographers, some better than others, but I had a grand respect for the art of photography," he said. "Sometimes I would catch myself watching episode after episode of 'America's Next Top Model.' By 2007, some of my passion for music had swayed into the world of Adobe Photoshop and graphic design. I designed flyers, album artwork, websites and even edited other bands' images. By the time our band had split in 2010, I decided I wanted to take on graphic design full time and started inquiring about DSLR cameras to shoot my own stock photography."
Cook received his first DSLR camera, a Nikon e5000, in 2010 as a Christmas gift and never imagined it would change his life, but it certainly did. Armed now with a Canon 5D Mark III, he has been published internationally and locally in publications like NFocus Magazine, The Voice, Courier Journal, Louisville Bride and any others. Being featured on the front page of Vogue Italia's online gallery is one of his proudest moments. His desire to share his knowledge and talent resulted in a recently sold out a photography workshop in November. Cook didn't start with fashion. though; he shot everything to gain experience: babies, landscapes, weddings, and couples. It was about a year before he found his niche in fashion editorial and advertising.
"I was in awe on my first fashion shoot; it really fulfilled my creative pallet," Cook explained. "From that point on I lived and breathed fashion and concept photography."
Cook said that it's difficult to narrow down one photographer who largely inspired him, but he draws inspiration from many things like people, art, music, films, and life in general. He notices his work has some similarities to Annie Leiboviz and Miller Mobley.
"I love the dramatics and the intimacy of their portraits. They are outer worldly and very ethereal. It's truly the photographer I strive to be."
Although he doesn't believe "the perfect photograph" exists, he said the creative story is everything to him. It is the foundation for his editorial work and definitely his film making. If there is no story with an image, it is much harder for him to translate the concept into the final product.
"That is why photography is such an amazing art. It's the imperfections and the uniqueness of an image that sells it to me. You may strive for the perfect shot, but in the end no one or nothing is absolutely perfect," he said. "[and with story,] no matter the project, I always create a story to go along with the image in my head, even if others don't.
He also loves collaborative projects. He doesn't have a favorite model type, but he did say that modeling isn't for everyone. It requires hard work, determination, and a very good attitude. When you work with a team, each team member is expected to pull their weight - model included. If a model knows light, knows their body, knows their lines and can shake off the concrete feet, then Cook is confident he can capture "it". Although, he was born in South Carolina, he moved to Louisville when he was very young and has a deep love for the city. He said that every day is an absolute blast and wildly different.
"There are so many talented creatives in Louisville and I love working with them. The beauty of imagery is that it's all subjective. What I see in an image may be completely different than what a hair stylist or model may see. Bringing all those visions into one room can lead to some amazing work. There are a lot of untapped opportunities and a great market for creative people, artists."
Future endeavors for cook include striving to break into national markets and to dip his toes into medium format photography with a Hasslelblad H4D or Mamiya RZ67 with a digital back. He also plans to move forward with video projects that he has undertaken with Antonio Pantoja, his partner in Glass Label (a video production company). They've done projects for the Kentucky School of Art, A Lion Named Roar, Z Salon and Spa, NFocus Magazine and Dillard's and want to complete a feature length film next.
"I feel as if my biggest accomplishment or my best work is yet to come, but I'm very proud of the fact I've been able to strategically shoot for all of Louisville's major publications in one month. October 2013 was the busiest month of my career. I've also been really honored to have my blog featured on the largest worldwide photography blog site PetaPixel and SLRLounge, which is seen from thousands daily."
Photography: Top: Clay Cook looks through images of Gunnar Deatherage (Photo by Jessica Lynn). Below: Fashion images supplied by Cook.